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Miketz: Leave Me Out of It

The story of Joseph is now in full swing, and this week the word of the week is בִּלְעָדָ֑י  bil’adai.  You remember the story so far — Joseph has been living in a dungeon for a couple of years now, but he had proved while in the dungeon that he was a great dream interpreter.  Now Pharaoh has had some disturbing dreams.

The chief butler suddenly remembers that this Joseph who had been in prison with him and Pharaoh’s baker interpreted their dreams pretty well.  So Joseph is hustled out of prison and is brought into the presence of Pharaoh.  Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I hear you can interpret dreams,” and Joseph replies with the word bil’adai.

Modern Hebrew has an adjective bil’adi meaning “exclusive,” but Biblical Hebrew bil’adai is actually a preposition plus the ending indicating “me.”  You can look at the word and see bli ‘without’ and ad ‘up to, as far as’ — which makes reasonable sense out of the usual meaning of this word in Biblical Hebrew, “except for.”  Look at Isa 43:11, where God announces, “I, I am YHWH, and there is no savior bal’adai [except for Me].”

The word occurs 17 times in the Bible, and in 14 of them it means “except for” or “without.”  It is used again in this week’s reading with just that meaning, when Pharaoh tells Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but without you [‏וּבִלְעָדֶ֗יךָ, u-vil’adekha] no one shall lift a hand or foot anywhere in the land of Egypt.”  There is an obscure usage of the word in Job 34:32; only once elsewhere is there a usage that seems to match what Joseph is saying here.

That comes in Gen 14:24, just after Abram has told the king of Sodom that he had sworn not to take any of the spoil from the aftermath of the battle of the four kings against the five.  It seems there to mean something like “leave me out of this.”  But what exactly might Joseph mean by saying that?  Let’s take a quick survey of what the great medieval commentators think about this question.

Rashi has Joseph telling Pharaoh, “The wisdom is not mine … The Holy One will put an answer in my mouth ‘for Pharaoh’s welfare.’”  Rashi’s grandson Rashbam understands bil’adai somewhat similarly:  “It does not depend on me … The Holy One will make known the interpretation of your welfare.”  Abraham ibn Ezra also understands the word to mean “It’s not up to me,” and Joseph Bekhor Shor makes clear that this is an argument against Rashi’s interpretation:

Rather, one should explain bil’adai as “[what I shall answer is] apart from me” — that is, “what I shall respond is not of my own accord, whether it is good or evil.  The interpretation does not depend on me; I must follow the dream, whether good or bad.

Bekhor Shor adds that Joseph was afraid the dream portended evil and Pharaoh would decide to “shoot the messenger,” as sometimes happens.

Gersonides expands this interpretation by noting what Joseph adds: “God will answer Pharaoh’s welfare.”  According to Gersonides, that’s a prayer that God will make Pharaoh’s dream be a good one, whatever the original intention of the dream was.

Sforno takes things even further in the direction of “leave me out of this.”  Pharaoh told Joseph, “Nobody can tell me what this dream means.”  In Sforno’s estimation, Joseph’s bil’adai has the same meaning it does elsewhere in the Bible, if used a bit colloquially: “[Plenty of people] besides me [could interpret it].”  Again, Joseph is trying to get out of the situation and escape responsibility.

Finally, let’s turn to Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his Ha’ameq Davar, who compares what Joseph told Pharaoh with what Daniel, centuries later, would say to King Nebuchadnezzar:

“Not because my wisdom is greater than that of other creatures has this mystery been revealed to me, but in order that the meaning should be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind” (Dan 2:30, in the NJPS translation from the Aramaic of this verse).

Presumably this is what Joseph is also doing: he’s being self-deprecatory, whether just to save his skin in case things turn out badly or out of true modesty.  In any case, he’s saying, it’s not really me who is interpreting the dream; whatever we find out will come from God.

What happens after Pharaoh tells him the dreams and Joseph interprets them?  Pharaoh makes Joseph the Prime Minister of Egypt and in v. 44 tells him “I am Pharaoh, but without you no one shall lift a hand or foot anywhere in the land of Egypt.”  This returns us to the standard biblical meaning of bil’adei: “except for you,” without your permission, no one in Egypt will move a muscle.

Joseph’s self-deprecation, if that’s what it was, is actually going to be counteracted by the situation.  What Pharaoh tells Joseph, if you read on in the story, is the simple truth:  Joseph will be controlling the events, pulling all the strings.  In fact, he is so full of himself that in Genesis 47 he enslaves the Egyptians in return for giving them the grain that they themselves grew.

Meanwhile, of course, he brings his own family down to Egypt.  Although Joseph doesn’t know this yet, his actions assure that they in their turn will eventually be made into slaves.  Joseph’s bil’adai may have been a little bit of an act; if it wasn’t an act, it didn’t last long. How  quickly his power went to his head.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.